Better access to healthcare starts with improving health literacy. In areas with too many patients and too few doctors people suffer or die for lack of information, rather than for lack of medication. In such a setting health information is crucial, but this must be in the language of the user, not of the author. Health information in the wrong language is not accessible and therefore not effective. Experts agree that – for example – in Kenya, with English and Swahili as the official national languages, not more than 15-20% of the population speaks English well enough to understand important information. This means that English is ‘the wrong language’ for 85% of Kenyans, and that for many of them English health information is useless. The situation in other countries in Africa where English or French information is used is probably comparable.
When health information is in a language people understand, it saves lives and money. When people fully understand their health options they make better choices improving their health outcomes and preventing possible illness. Doctors, nurses and community health workers are more efficient when utilizing the language of their patients, which saves time, money and lives. Every dollar invested in health information in the right language will pay itself back many, many times.
Far too often, however, health information is in the wrong language. There are several reasons for this: Governments or NGOs do not recognise the crucial role languages play, they think they cannot afford the cost (despite the direct savings as well as the huge return on investment), or they suspect it must be hard to find a translator who can do a good job.
And that is where Translators without Borders (TWB) steps in. We have set up a Swahili Health Translation Center in Nairobi, Kenya. Since early 2012, our team of trained health translators has been working with many types of health information including training materials for CHWs, dozens of the most frequently read health articles in Wikipedia, and health information to be distributed via smart phones, software, and so forth. Our center employs persons with either a medical or a language background and they work in teams so that translated information will be optimally clear as well as medically correct. NGOs and governments can use the center to help improve healthcare by providing local language health information.
In February I attended a workshop (organized by Lesley-Anne Long of the Open University) in Arusha, Tanzania. For half an hour I had the opportunity to present TWB’s story about our language solution for public health, in front of participants from the ministries of health of 4 countries in East Africa, as well as representatives from both large and small NGOs. I began my presentation by addressing the audience in Dutch, which was not understood by anyone else in the room. I then asked the group to imagine how it would feel when your world falls apart due to a medical emergency and someone trying to provide help uses a language you don’t understand.
Here are the slides from my presentation, I hope you find it useful: